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Circumstance, inner light and human agency – reflections on the life and times of Allama Yusuf Ali, 1872-1953

By: M A Sherif

Allama Yusuf Ali was a great Indian Muslim man of letters whose English translation and commentary of the Holy Qur'an has served as a comfort and inspiration since its first installment was published in Lahore in 1934.

Yusuf Ali died fifty five years ago in London, alone and neglected. It is a matter of shame and sorrow that care and respect was not forthcoming when he most required it – either from his children or the community. We remember him today to undo this injustice of the past. However if he were to walk into the room he may well disapprove of such homage and direct us to one of his commentary notes of Surah Al-Imran, which includes a quote from the poet Henry Longfellow, "All this world's a fleeting show. For men's illusion given." Or, in a forebearing, head masterly fashion he might direct us to his essay, 'The Idea of Salvation in Islam', in which "restless, homeless, friendless" man cries out in self-indictment "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!"

The truth is that we need Yusuf Ali's memory more than he needs our memorials. Michael Holroyd, famous chronicler of the life of George Bernard Shaw, has observed that biographical study brings hidden lives into view and thus serves to humanize history. He notes, "By re-examining the past and pointing it in a new direction, it may now be used to question our understanding of the present, and affect our vision of the future." [click for more]

Text of the Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture hosted at the International Institute of Advanced Studies (IAIS) Malaysia and convened by the Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur in December 2008

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